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Innovation – Harken

Harken: In search of a better block

Harken: In search of a better block

Harken, the dominant manufacturer of sailboat hardware and accessories, needs new ideas to stay ahead of its competitors — and it gets them.

“We get inundated with [the ideas of] paper inventors” who have never actually built their inventions, says Peter Harken, the company co-founder. “We have an open mind in that we accept any crazy idea that comes.”

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Harken, 70, invented his company’s first product and with his brother, Olaf, 68, started the firm in Pewaukee, Wis., in the 1960s ( ). Now holding a “good 100 patents,” the company has replaced him with a committee of engineers and advertising and marketing experts (overseen by Harken) who decide which new ideas the company will tackle. The so-called “product development committee,” which meets every Thursday, is far removed from the kitchen table where, alone, Harken figured out how to build sailing’s first ball-bearing blocks.

With a batch of crazy ideas, the committee begins asking questions: “What if? Does it fit our marketing? Does it fit our distribution business?” says Harken. “Then we go through a procedure [to decide] whether we’re going to attack this product or not.”

At this point, Harken says, the company’s innovation comes from all over the world, a lot of it from sailracers who already are Harken customers and have seen a way to improve on a product. That’s what happened in the 1960s, when Peter Harken was a college student studying international economics at the University of Wisconsin.

“I had started in engineering, and I was a big screw-off at school,” he recalls. Among his favorite diversions were sailing and iceboating. These interfered with the sport for which Harken had been given a scholarship — swimming — and in the end, he says, the swimming coach helped him choose in favor of sailing by yanking his scholarship.

Needing an income to stay in school, Harken got a job at Gilson Medical Electronics, a manufacturer of medical devices and instruments. The owner allowed him to use the company’s machine shop after hours. “When you’re a student, you don’t have any money, basically,” he says. “I built my own boats and gear, deck hardware. I spent more time doing that than going to class.”

At work, Harken was assigned to various projects. One involved using a Lazy Susan device for filling test tubes inside a refrigeration unit. “I was scratching my head on what kinds of bearings I could put the Lazy Susan on that wouldn’t rust and would be completely clean,” he says. “All of a sudden I wondered, Does anybody make plastic balls? I found a little company in New Jersey that did.” He says the bearings “worked nicely” on the Lazy Susan.

“At the same time, I was making my own pulleys,” Harken says. “It sort of lit up in me. I wonder if I can use these plastic balls in a pulley, because it would have some value in sailing.” Harken says he was looking for ways to overcome the problem of letting the mainsail out in light air. “In normal blocks, there was a lot of friction. You had to push the boom out. I was trying to find a way to stay quiet in the boat, because the [quieter] you are, the faster you are.

“After that evening that I discovered how well they [plastic ball bearings] worked on that Lazy Susan machine, I went home, and instead of picking up the books I started sketching out on the kitchen table how I would use them on a sheave,” Harken says. “[I] kind of calculated the side plates so there would be a tiny amount of slop.” Even today, “In all our products, we do design slop to allow salt and dirt to get in but also to get out. People don’t like lubrication on their boats.

“The next day after work, I started making chips, getting on the machines to make the blocks,” he recalls. “After I made the first one, I spun it, and it looked pretty good to me. So I made several and put them on my boat, and they worked well.”

Harken’s friends saw how well his blocks worked, and he made some for them. Then in 1968, when he made an unsuccessful bid to make the Olympic sailing team, he made blocks for two other boats that won gold medals. “Suddenly all the Europeans were looking at them, [asking], ‘Where do you get those things?’ The rest is history.”

Sailboat racing still is a driving force of the company’s innovation, Harken says. “Volvo Ocean Race, Vendee Globe and the French boats that are out there racing now, I would say most of the equipment on those boats is ours, and we do learn quite a bit from those,” he says. “From our ocean-racing experience and around-the-world racing, we learn a lot about reliability. As an example, we do very much fatigue testing. We never had to do that before. Basically, when sails stretched, boats gave a little bit, lines stretched, all we had to do was test for static load. If a piece of equipment should take 10,000 pounds, that’s what we tested for.”

Improvements in the technology for constructing lines mean they no longer stretch, Harken notes. Carbon fiber is “extremely stiff,” he says. “The material in sails doesn’t stretch at all. Everything is a shock load, like hitting it with a hammer. So we have gone into endurance testing. It’s like taking a strip of metal and bending it back and forth. How many times can you do that before it breaks?”

And there is a benefit for cruising sailors, he says. “What we learn,” he notes, “we’ll put into the cruising line.”

Harken says 10 of the 11 America’s Cup syndicates in the last event used the company’s hardware. “And it’s all custom work,” he says. “From that work, we get a trickle down. What’s on the market for big boats was on America’s Cup boats two times ago.”

It’s the exact model with which the Harkens started the company 40 years ago. But now neither one is the inventor. “I did [the inventing] in the beginning,” Harken says, “and now I’ve got a pretty tough engineering staff. I just stick my nose in and oversee it.”